Legal costs soar as dispute over civil rights violations prolongs

District sends packet of complaints about the OCR to national and state officials


Jamie Har

The high cost of recent legal bills is not a new occurrence­ — Since 2013, PAUSD has spent several thousands of dollars on the OCR.

The Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) has spent more than $200,000 on legal costs resulting from ongoing conflicts with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the past seven months.

In a Palo Alto Weekly article, PAUSD Superintendent Max McGee reported that the district currently has two sexual harassment related OCR cases along with another complaint filed on Aug. 21 regarding a 501 plan, which is a formal educational plan for students with special needs.

A recent article in the Palo Alto Weekly described the basis of the costs, stating that “documents show two attorneys spent more than 100 hours in May prepping staff at Palo Alto High School, Gunn High School and district administrators and then accompanying them to interviews with OCR investigators.”

In the past, Palo Alto’s OCR case legal bills have been just as costly. In 2013, a family sued PAUSD because their child, who had autism, was refused in-home schooling, which resulted in $30,000 spent on litigation. The Palo Alto Weekly’s review of legal bills through July reports that the fees come from four lawyers and communications consultants from Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost, the district’s law firm.

The prolonged nature of these cases and the lack of written communication between the OCR and PAUSD are the origins of these costly disputes. In a public board meeting packet titled “Recommendations: Suggestions to Improve Collaboration between School Districts and the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights,” PAUSD listed 20 grievances with the OCR.

According to the district, this packet was sent to national and state officials and organizations, including officials from the national and state OCR, California Senator Jerry Hill, Representative Anna Eshoo and officials at the California National and local School Boards Associations. One publicly released letter sent to Eshoo by Barb Mitchell and Melissa Baten Caswell, the president and vice president of the district’s Board of Education respectively, asks her to “request active participation in discussions and review of ways those processes might be improved for all.”

Though the packet was drafted in May, its public release was delayed by the district because the board was on hiatus during the summer and wanted to give Max McGee, who began as PAUSD’s superintendent on Aug. 4, time to adjust to his new job.

Among the grievances listed are  the OCR’s prolonging of the overall investigative process and the lack of due process and written communication. Claiming that OCR is not following its 180-day maximum timeline for an investigation, the document states that “OCR has taken eight, nine and 15 months to complete investigations in the district, and any OCR investigation appears to take a minimum of two months to complete.” PAUSD additionally asserts that the OCR has not given the district due process in its investigations. The document claims that “this [lack of due process] structure places a school district at a constant deficit and undermines a district’s confidence in an OCR investigation.”

However, the OCR has protocol about when and to whom due process is granted. The document further states that “[the] OCR asserts that protections of due process do not apply to a district under investigation unless and until OCR brings an enforcement action threatening removal of federal funds.”

According to PAUSD, the lack of written communication between the OCR and PAUSD throughout the investigation, despite the fact that the OCR has requested it, further delays the resolution. Complaint 18 states that the “OCR has not responded to the District’s letters of May 20, 2013; Feb. 19, 2014; and Apr. 23, 2014, despite those letters following communications where OCR encouraged the District to put its concerns in writing.”

This prolonged battle between the OCR and PAUSD continues to drain the district’s resources. If PAUSD continues to spend money on attempts to resolve the flaws in the OCR’s investigative process, it will prove to be even more costly for the district.